Discrimination Litigation over Angels Giveaway Offers More Than Meets the Eye

Aug 18, 2006

Discrimination Litigation over Angels Giveaway Offers More Than Meets the Eye
By Ted Curtis*
Could an Angels tote bag actually be about more than just a tote bag? A fan filed a class-action suit against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on May 4, 2006, claiming that the Major League Baseball team violated California’s civil rights law by only distributing free red nylon tote bags to adult women during a 2005 Mother’s Day promotion.
The suit, filed on behalf of San Diego resident Michael Cohn, claims that thousands of men and under-18 fans each are entitled to $4,000 in statutory damages under California’s broad-based Unruh Civil Rights Act for the team’s act of alleged discrimination. A court reportedly is scheduled to hear the case later this month.
The Unruh Act states, in part, that all persons in California are “free and equal” and that, regardless of characteristics such as gender, all persons “are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever” (Cal. Civil Code sec. 51(b)). The California Supreme Court has ruled that it is therefore illegal to offer women discounted prices on services (Koire v. Metro Car Wash, 40 Cal.3d 24 (1985), holding that a car wash operator violated Unruh by offering cheaper services on “Ladies Day” for women only).
The question remains: If Unruh applies to discounted pricing, does it also apply to pricing that differs due to the value-added worth of one item over another? Can it be said that a man’s ticket to the Angels’ Mother’s Day game is less valuable than a woman’s because it does not include the tote bag – and, if so, does that signal an Unruh violation? The Angels argue in its answer to the lawsuit that the promotion does not violate Unruh, contending that the bag was only a “token promotional gift” in line with the “demonstrable social and public policy” of honoring mothers.
Discussing lawsuits over tote bags may sound silly and quite petty. To be sure, some are happy to poke fun at the lawsuit: In July, a Pittsburgh Pirates minor league affiliate, the Altoona Curve, held “Salute to Frivolous Lawsuit Night,” with such giveaways as a pink tote bag handed out to the first 137 men in attendance.
And it is quite easy – particularly with class action status seeking $4,000 for each un-tote-bagged man – to wish to lay a judicial backhand to this suit and dismiss it as the product of money-grubbing whining.
However, there may be more to it – and not just because fans may hock some giveaways for pretty pennies indeed on eBay. At this lawsuit’s heart may lie the answer to an important question in California, a state with dozens of professional athletics franchises: How far does Unruh go, especially when it comes to sports promotions?
May California teams legally replicate successful 2006 promotions such as “Play Catch on the Field With Dad” (Florida Marlins, including a golf headcover for dads only), “American Girl Day” (Chicago Cubs, with unique doll outfit for girls only) and “Ladies Night” (Cleveland Indians, offering free ice cream for women only). And if not, what are the parameters of such giveaways? Indeed, two previous lawsuits over this issue – against the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres over their women’s-only baseball clinics – caused teams to change their gender-limiting policies; Meanwhile, this year’s Angels tote-bag promotion was made available to women and men. So, how much farther does Unruh go regarding such promotions?
Once these questions are settled, California sports teams then may have some specific direction as to how to go about their critical core business of trying to bring in fans — one giveaway at a time.
Ted Curtis is a professor of sports management at Lynn University in south Florida. He can be reached at tcurtis@lynn.edu.


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